Suffolk Libraries; Woodbridge Library

 
Update January 2013:
Woodbridge Library   After huge protest from Suffolk residents of all ages and backgrounds and kickstarted by the Library-loving residents of  Woodbridge, the Suffolk County Council administration backed down on some of their more worrying  threats.   Under the ill-conceived NSDit was stated that if local Libraries were not supported by local groups then a number of the smaller sites would have funding removed from them, which would ultimately mean closure.

However, towards the end of 2011 the council changed their mind and opted to outsource the Library organisation into an Industrial and Provident Society for the benefit of the community.  This means that the Library system has become a member-based organisation where local libraries will become members of the IPS and be able to vote on policy decisions, and what the organisation will do with the funding that it receives from the Council.

Under these new proposals there are no planned closures for Libraries in the County. However those libraries that do not have existing community groups will be run by the IPS.  Each of the Libraries will be tasked to make 5% savings on top the savings that are already embedded in the proposals.  This may mean an increase in volunteers, more fund-raising events, or changing suppliers for maintenance contracts.

We are told that one of the main benefits of using this system over that of an in-house Library service is that with an IPS, the Council can bid for charitable status.  This means that there would be a significant reduction in the amount of business rates that the organisation will pay – potentially 80%.

Currently, Woodbridge Library is run by theIPS which means that decision-making occurs without local involvement – for example in the matter of the moving in of Suffolk Coastal District services to the premises without consideration of users’ wishes. All moneys earned by the Library go back to the IPS, rather than being spent at the discretion of local users.

We are considering that it is now to set up a Friends of Woodbridge Library group to allow the people of Woodbridge – and the surrounding district – a greater degree of control.

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Suffolk Lib Dem Group Library policy

Suffolk Lib Dem Group recognises the immense value of libraries to the Suffolk community. Most particularly because libraries :

  • Provide materials for study to help both young and mature students – and especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds;
  • Provide materials for leisure helping people relax, thus enhancing or maintaining their mental health;
  • Provide a centre for social interaction – which enhances community cohesion;
  • Provide a place for quiet study for those who don’t enjoy such facilities at home;
  • Provide a source of reference material in both physical and on-line formats;
  • Provide internet access for people who can’t afford such equipment, don’t have the space to accommodate it, have occasional need or just need help with the processes.

It is essential that

  • the above facilities should be provided
  • the provision must meet current needs and satisfy foreseeable trends
  • the business structure should be stable and finance should be certain
  • accommodation should be conveniently located for existing population centres, thinking particularly of those that are disadvantaged
  • adequate public transport and car parking facilities should be available.
  • accommodation should attract users, being clean, comfortable and accessible
  • mobile libraries should be provided and used effectively to ensure a service in low population density rural areas
  • staff should be friendly, welcoming and willing to help new users of any age, not just the long established library buffs.
Suffolk libraries at risk from SCC's New Strategic Directive!
Suffolk libraries at risk from SCC’s New Strategic Directive!

 

Update:   Woodbridge started the first petition against SCC’s plans for Library divestment and closure back in October 2010 (see cutting above) . Shortly after, thousands of others followed our lead. The strength of the opposition  surprised SCC into a change of direction. Or did it? Certainly they  went back to the drawing board.

On  15 December, the County’s Tory Councillors voted in bulk to transfer library management and running to an IPS (Industrial and Provident Society), despite this being judged by the County Council to be the riskiest and least hands-on of the three business models they evaluated. (The other two models being “in house business unit” and a “company limited by guarantee, wholly owned by SCC”)

Some of the implications and considerations – and my concerns about them – are aired here.

The story up to now:

10 April 2011   I have just written  to the officers and Portfolio-holder in charge of Suffolk’s libraries to propose that SCC grants an extension for Woodbridge (and potentially many other areas like it)  to the 30 April deadline for the Suffolk Libraries ‘consultation’..   Briefly, I’m suggesting this extension on the following compelling grounds:

  1. An unclear, inconsistent message. It has only recently been made clear by SCC that this supposed Library ‘consultation’ is in reality a seemingly compulsory bidding process (see note 1 below, also Appendix d)
     
  2. Woefully Inadequate financial figures provided to support the consultation document. This is not my personal opinion, but the opinion of the venture capitalist to whom I showed the document   – and who was frankly incredulous (see Note 2 below)
     
  3. Overambitious timescale: the excuse given by SCC for the paucity and poor quality of supporting materials intended to elicit ‘expressions of interest’ in the Library  is the short timescale leading up to the library ‘consultation’ period.

    In reality this Suffolk scheme was announced nationally in early August 2010 giving experienced library staff 5 months to prepare for it before the consultation started.  This is considerably more time than the council is offering to utter library tyros for them to discover whether an ‘expression of interest’ is even possible. This seems an unreasonably ungenerous and compressed timescale for such a complete shift in library provision
     
  4. Inbuilt demographic disadvantage of towns such as Woodbridge. Woodbridge being a small town which punches above its weight, is also a large focal point for a vast geographical area and has a library worthy of being classed a ‘county library’. But with a voting population of around 7500 , the town council precept is very small. The range of possible local volunteers also small.  When this becomes a locality issue, our specific locality is too small  (see Note 3)
     
  5.  Specific disadvantage for Woodbridge: Woodbridge is adjacent to Wilford the geographically huge, bounded-by-the-sea-on-more-than-one-side, libraryless district  that runs eastward from Woodbridge to the sea, southward to the sea at Bawdsey, and northward to just below Aldeburgh. Because Wilford is libraryless, Woodbridge library is the only available option for most Wilford residents. Yet, due to the sad death of its incumbent county councillor,  Wilford has been without a county council representative for the entire duration  of the library consultation/bidding process.  This discriminates against significant locality decisions being made at county council level
     
  6. Imminent change to Town and District council: like many other places in Suffolk, all the local representatives of Woodbridge (apart from me) are up for election or standing down  on 5 May – a week after the consultation finishes. They are thus much less able or motivated  to make an ‘expression of interest’ than the councillors elected on May 6 who will have a 4 year tenure in front of them (see Note 4 below).
     
  7. Limited possibilities of Income Generation. Clearly unhappy that Woodbridge as a whole or in part  has made no ‘expression of interest’ in the library consultation, SCC library officers recently suggested income generation by: late book fines, room lettings inc out of hours, teaching IT skills, commission charged via a community gallery.  Also suggested were things that have been tried in libraries but that are proven to make less money: DVDs, reading glasses and book tokens.  
    Cannot anyone see how futile this appears, when it is impossible to disambiguate the much larger supporting figures provided? (See Note 2 below)

All these reasons make it hard for a businesslike case to be made for any ‘expression of interest’  in running a library within the timescale Suffolk CC have set out. The people of Woodbridge are likely to be too well-grounded in reality to want to make any proposal under such circumstances. It would seem a great shame that they should be thus deprived of a chance to have a reasoned and factually supported say in how their local library provision is to be altered

 

Notes

1 Unclear, inconsistent message. It has only recently been made clear by SCC that when it stated the Library consultation “aims to encourage community and voluntary groups, businesses, local councils and individuals across Suffolk to have their say about ways to run their local library differently and at reduced cost “ it  was actually announcing a disguised but seemingly compulsory bidding process.  On the one hand, we hear,

When the consultation has finished, the responses, including people’s views on the categorisation, will be analysed and recommendations will be put to Cabinet in July. I do not know at this point what those recommendations will be.” Portfolio-holder Judy Terry.

Yet  this does not seem to reflect SCC’s expectations of the outcome of this ‘consultation’ : indeed from what SCC officers tell me, what appears to be required are hard business proposals by 30th April for running our local library with 30% cuts.

More, I have just been warned verbally by my locality officers that “there have been no ‘expressions of interest’ at all from Woodbridge “  and that “unless proposals are put forward by the community, the community will have decisions made for them”. Yet I can  find nowhere  in the supposed ‘consultation’ any statement   that says these “expressions of interest”are  anything other than voluntary.

The officers tell me “In addition to the 30% cut, the other issue about libraries is that of ownership – there is an issue about who will own the libraries and the options in the consultation include the following:

Following the Cabinet’s decision, we will start the process of arranging for other organisations to take over the running of libraries. (CP: In other words: the cabinet’s decision is already made before the consultation is over. This is in direct contradiction to Judy Terry’s comment above.) There are a number of ways in which we may select organisations to do this.

  • We can delegate the running of the service to another council – this could be town or parish, borough or district, or even to a council outside Suffolk.

  • We may invite Suffolk community groups to bid to take on the running of a library, and this is more likely for community libraries.

  • We may open up the opportunity more widely to all potential providers, and this is more likely for county libraries.

  • We may, if appropriate, negotiate directly with a suitable organisation to take over the running of a library.”

So” (say the officers) ” it might be worth checking whether the Town Council have picked up on this aspect of the consultation as well as the 30% reduction in costs. I understand that the Seckford Foundation have had discussions with relevant people at SCC about the libraries, but I am unaware of any proposals from them. This may be a link that the Town Council would want to explore further – possibly to develop a partnership approach?

The business of  ‘ownership’ is very important, as it raises all sorts of issues concerning the likelihood of external companies ‘raiding’ our wonderful expensive, purpose-built town hub: which houses the Library but is not necessarily ‘the library’.

Portfolio-holder  Judy Terry was quoted on BBC saying “We think the better approach is to listen to people and then draw up a model based on what people are saying.” It is perhaps therefore unsurprising that even library staff, let alone the general population  were under the impression that they had to wait to the end of the consultation to find out what was happening, rather than express interest in a county library ahead of this .  Yet in a recent communication to me the Portfolio-holder  says “I have made it very clear from the launch of the consultation, and it is very clear in the consultation document, that the council is looking for new providers for all the libraries, not just those proposed as community libraries…

Not to most people in Woodbridge, who considered that a ‘county’ library was ‘safe’. Indeed I had to correct a local representative who wanted to stop “rumours” that Woodbridge library “wasn’t safe”.

2. Woefully Inadequate figures SCC produced online figures to support ‘expressions of interest.’ Some where deeply vague (Appendix a ) or frankly inappropriate and indigestible (Appendix b). After commenting on their inadequacy  I received brief  accurate figures  for library running costs on 7th April  (Appendix c) only  three weeks before the end of the consultation

I showed these figures to a venture capitalist for disambiguation. He said:

“The first spread sheet (Appendix a: Single sheet)  tells one nothing – for example, not even the total hours worked by the group of full and part time employees.

The second spread sheet (Appendix b Financial data) raises a raft of questions (beyond simply what many of the terms mean eg “controllable” and “Non-controllable costs”.  For example:

  • what is the source of the income £43.5k pa – (strangely identified as a direct cost) – will it continue in the future?

  • most of the costs (£264k pa) are indirect costs, allocated to this library from a central pool.  We have no way of knowing which the Council may require to continue and which not.  For example will the ”Ipswich Information Centre” charge (£72.9k pa) continue?

Consequently, one could not with this lack of explanation of the future policy on charges and income for the library prepare any sort of budget for running the library based on the first two spreadsheets.

Your attached spreadsheet (Appendix c – the simple costs as provided by library service to Caroline Page on 7 April) appears to answer the questions to the true direct cost of the library.  So it is much more helpful but will any other costs will be allocated or required? The costs I can’t see are those related to payments to authors and buying books.    How are those to be covered?   Also, what is “NDR”?”

My view is that  if a venture capitalist found these figures difficult, what hope has your average member of the public?

3    Inbuilt disadvantage: a small town like Woodbridge containing a potential ‘county’ library are at a huge disadvantage in an atmosphere of such such enforced localism. This is because the library may be local but the clientele aren’t.

Not only is the geographical  customer base scattered widely from Felixstowe to Saxmundham, Aldeburgh to Needham Market, but that base covers other small libraries who will need to fight for their own survival rather than help Woodbridge . Additionally, Woodbridge and other market towns are small, and lack number of population with expertise and time. This means we are at a disadvantage against both larger towns private companies  in producing a business plan at the above short notice. The town council precept also reflects the number of residents rather than the number of users. Locality officers have asked me whether Woodbridge Town Council had considered raising their precept to cover the library (and were frankly amazed when I told them how little the total precept amounts to and thus how truly impossible this was!)

4.Woodbridge Town Council, and Suffolk Coastal District Council are both going into elections a week after the ‘consultation’/bidding process is proposed  to have finished.   It would seem extremely unreasonable to expect
a) the councillors currently in post to be making long term decisions for other councillors to honour
b) the new council members to be deprived of a chance of making proposals on such a momentous issue . At the same time, a by-election in Wilford will allow the chance of negotiations to include this other district

APPENDICES A and B can be found as the Single sheet.pdf and Financial data .pdf listed for Woodbridge on the consultation page:

APPENDIX C

Simple library costs supplied by Library service to Caroline Page 7 April 2011

Woodbridge
2009/2010  Budget allocation 2010/2011 Forecasts (based on information available end of Jan 2011).NI and Pension payments included in saleries and wages cost
Salaries & Wages £149,617 £156 365
Relief Staffing £15,343
Total staff £171,708
Travel Expenses £0.00 £227 paid centrally
Phone calls & line rental £569
Income -£43,480.00 -£31,998
Total Direct Costs 106137 £140,528
Notes
The staff costs are higher in 2010/11 as the library was open for an additional day when the new Library opened
Relief and travel costs are met from a central budget
All the indirect costs on the Unit cost information with the exception
of a small amount from AL101 would not be part of any direct cost
calculation . AL101 includes holiday pay for relief staff and a small amount
£200 pa may need to be included in future staff costs if relief  staff continue
to be used
Property related Costs
2008/2009 £ 2009/2010 £
Electricity £2,499
Water 365
Gas 2827
Cleaning 11281
NDR 25033
Grounds 221
Refuse 278
Total building related costs 8854
£51,358
I do not have any 2008/9 figures available  for the property related costs
Job title number hours scale point
Manager 1 37
Asst manager 1 34
Enquiry officer 9 119.25
library assistant 2 20
Sunday officer 4 12

Asked on my behalf: “just to be clear – it is these staff and property costs that would be taken on by any divestee??”

The reply “in essence yes , although it is not 100% clear what the ‘offer ‘ is from SCC post-divestment , we have been saying stock/IT /professional expertise eg in Information management, work with children , stock management and support (the latter ranging from reading development , stock and reading promotion , work around basic skills and also extending to improving mental health ) would continue to be provided centrally .certainly the stock and allied stock based services and professional support via SPINE

APPENDIX D

Description of the change to Suffolk Library services as given in the DCMS announcement of August 2010:

Local Libraries (Suffolk) The Suffolk project is about working with community groups to support them in managing their local library.  This approach aims to enable communities to take control of running their library and shape it to meet the needs of local people.  These community run libraries will be supported by a countywide online service, a network which allows people to borrow from one place and return to another, as well as a ‘value for money’ book lending and reservation service. This approach aims to enable communities to take control of running their libraries, shaping them to fit their locality, whilst making savings in management and bureaucracy, yet retaining the networked services which are so valued in Suffolk

Enabling communities? Supporting  the needs of local people?  And not a single suggestion of arm-twisting or compulsion?  Please!   This weasel-worded document  implies the people of Suffolk are flocking to dismantle their wonderful, efficient, and much-loved library services.

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Caroline Page, County Councillor for Woodbridge